Christian Morality and Libertarian Reality

A good friend of mine was the unfortunate victim of a burglary of her home while she was away at work. This was Christmastime, and among the items taken were all of the presents she had wrapped for her loved ones just the night before. What stood out to me from hearing her tale was that she felt more sadness for the burglar than for her own personal loss. What was disappointing was that someone would stoop so low as to steal Christmas presents.

It is easy to judge such a person as some sort of low-life. But my friend is correct: in reality, it is sad. It is sad that someone would be so unhappy and with such a skewed value system that he would steal not just other people's property, which is bad enough, but their gifts as well. While it is right to seek justice and restitution, on a more personal level we would do well to pray for genuine repentance on the part of that individual. This is Christian compassion at its best, not just giving to the poor, but reaching out to the genuine bad guys.

The only way – there is in fact no other possible way – to reform a genuinely bad, depraved human being is to become friends with him. Without a relationship – if the evangelism is only about legalistic "sin" and intellectual "proofs" about Christianity – then the entire point is missed. The central point is about love, about relationship.

Making friends is the anti-violence. Reaching out – not for the sake of evangelism or "conversion" but rather to enjoy a relationship for its own sake with a fellow human being – is the genuine call of the Christian.

That is, loving one's enemies. Loving the burglars, the murderers. And the drug addicts and alcoholics and other non-violent violators. But you can't love them for what they did, you can only love them if you get to know them. That is, initiate a relationship.

It is perhaps easier to love the "least of these" when they are fetuses, or disabled people or impoverished children, then it is to love the fully mature adult who would just as soon kill you as look at you. But there is always something, if not likeable, at least interesting, about every human being. It's not a "trick" or "method" to bring one to Christ. Rather, it is a relationship in which the "bad" guy begins to value something – the relationship, which is, his love for you – just as much if not more than his own selfish desires. The lack of experiencing genuine love in one's life is no doubt a large contributor in criminality. How can a person have a respect for the rights of strangers when even the relationships closest to himself haven't been loving?

Visiting people in prison is not a command by Jesus to pretend "compassion" in order to show "good works." I think Jesus was suggesting instead that if you visit a prison, you would find personalities just as interesting and loveable as Jesus himself. And that's the point. To reach out, not in order to try to convert people, but to just enjoy whatever relationships you make with your "neighbors," such as they are. Your own life would be enriched, in the here and now, by your outreach to the traditionally unloved and despised. Not because you are doing "God's work" but because you are yourself enjoying the new relationship.

The same idea should, hopefully, restrain libertarians in their – almost always just – tirades against the governing Establishment. Christians, who should be sharing good news, often come across as uptight, mean, and judgmental when speaking out on the moral issues of the day. Likewise, libertarians would do well to tone down charges against the governing class of maliciousness, mendacity, thievery, murder, and willful unconstitutionality. It is easy to condemn all politicians as socialists or fascists, and to refer to their followers as the “sheeple.” But this often serves to alienate people and turn them off to a very powerful and uplifting message. People will walk away from the message if they are turned off by the messenger.

Most politicians do not, in all good conscience, think of their own work as evil, even if all of the practical effects of what they do are entirely evil. They were raised, instead, to esteem public office and to value it as a proper vehicle for ambition and social improvement.

They may have been raised badly. But who, among libertarians, were not? It took me thirty years of eclectic experiences to realize just how badly our two-party system made a mess of things and how much better libertarianism really was. And I was raised in a good Christian home with very intelligent, moral, and loving parents, whose political judgments were not based on cult-worship or self-enrichment but rather from a genuine concern, and judgment based on their knowledge, of what is best for America, the world, and social justice. It is because I deferred to their moral authority for so long that I acquiesced in their mistaken judgments. It is because they were mistaken, as opposed to cravenly evil, that I myself was mistaken for a long time.

If my parents and other family and friends could be so mistaken about right and wrong, good and bad, when their own judgments were based on sincere search for the public good rather than personal enrichment, can I then fairly accuse all politicians of our two-party monopoly of criminal misconduct? I think not. Many if not most of our elected office holders are doing, at least most of the time, what they think is right.

But their morality is based on the extension of the State: of threats, of legality, of conformity. Yet genuine morality and freedom comes from free association – from relationship. From love.

The answer of Christianity happens to be the answer of libertarianism. Instead of judgment, offer relationship. Instead of aggression, offer non-violence. Instead of nationalism, love your enemies.

I admit to enjoying the violent Matrix movies, just as I enjoy the violent Lord of the Rings movies. In both stories, violence was employed in, shall we say, "exceptional times." In The Matrix, the battles between Neo and Agent Smith are, in the context of the world around them, akin more to battles between God's angels and Satan's demons. In the Rings movies, the story is about an end of an "Age" in which those who are trying to remove a curse on humanity, are opposed by those who are trying to obtain the very object of the curse in order to prolong it for personal power. Therefore, I watched in suspense, but not because I took pleasure in the violence per se.

This makes a difference. This isn't Indiana Jones killing German conscripts in the 1930’s, or Rambo doing the same to Soviet conscripts in the 1980’s, or even some outrageous James Bond scenario of killing dozens of goons on some small island owned by a power-mad genius.

Nor do war movies excite me either, not anymore. For every heroic death of one of our guys, is at least one death for one of "their" guys. And their guys were also conscripts, caught in the very same nexus of patriotism, trust of authority, and religion (Romans 13 would apply to a German Christian every bit as much as it does to an American Christian).

The ideology of war, regardless of religion or culture, is the ideal of killing and self-sacrifice, of kill and be killed. The survivors, like Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg's movie, may feel guilty that they survived the war when their comrades and friends did not. Not dying meant they didn't completely fulfill their "duty."

What makes war all the more tragic is retrospective judgment. FDR and Churchill were, for all their grievous and unpardonable faults, better than Hitler, and it is good that we won World War II. But how would the German and Japanese conscripts have known that our leaders were better than theirs? And why would the conscripts in the Soviet Empire have known that they were "better" for fighting for Stalin, as opposed to fighting for Hitler?

It is the tendency of almost every one of us to believe the values we were taught through our childhood years by all of the authority figures in our lives: parents, teachers, clergy, politicians. We teach violence – the "just" use of violence – to our children through movies, television, and eventually history textbooks. We teach that courage, honor, and duty, means to kill and risk death.

And that ideal held me captive for a long time. Wars are good if fought by the good guys, and by some dumb luck in a cosmic lottery, I happen to be born in a country of good guys. When I was a teenager, I loved the stylized violence of Brian de Palma's movie The Untouchables, whose title refers to the "incorruptible" federal Treasury agents who would enforce Prohibition at all costs. Federal cops good, Al Capone's guys – who were selling to otherwise decent and law-abiding people something they wanted – bad.

Well, I don't believe it any more. Enforcing the government's unjust policies – even if the rulers are duly elected – is not a command for a Christian or any moral being. God's command for us is to love God, and his second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, is not a contradiction, or a set of priorities in which God would force love for Him to "trump" love for neighbor: Sorry, neighbor, you die because I love God more. That's not the point. Rather, the more we love God, the more we love our neighbor, and the more we love our neighbor, the more we love God.

There's a difference between fictional, fantasized violence that provides a metaphor for the world's spiritual and philosophical struggles, and the gory violence that de-humanizes the select enemies of the United States government, such as drug-dealers and citizens of certain countries.

Once, I had violent fantasies of killing bad guys. Now, I do not. You learn what war really is, and what our police are really policing, and the whole "use of force" business doesn't seem morally worthwhile anymore. I'd like to think I'd have the courage to resist aggressors to protect the innocent, but I no longer fantasize about such scenarios, but rather hope they never come up. And if they do, that the aggressor could be "talked down" or otherwise prevented from wrongdoing without lethal force.

For while I believe in the libertarian ethic of personal responsibility, I view it as a moral standard, not a measure of moral judgment. My ideal is not to condemn and remove all violent people – whether they are criminals or craven politicians, but hope that they all can enjoy the libertarian ideal of healthy, non-aggressive relationships based on love instead of force.

February 17, 2004